Thursday, November 21, 2013

Roundtable Discussion: The Monotonous Intensity Problem

This response in the comments on yesterday’s post got way too long, so let’s hash it out here:

First, James Kennedy said:
  • I have an idea for an additional checklist item, if I may. It comes from watching too many movies lately in which the tone is wearyingly unvarying. Stuff like ENDER’S GAME or THE HUNGER GAMES just has this relentless pounding on the same emotion again and again, which leads to a deadened experience for the audience. (Both have this feeling, it feels like 95% of the time, of a tense gotta-do-the-jobness, rarely venturing into anything that would make one laugh or cry or be aroused or whatever.)
  • Contrast this to, say, STAR WARS or RAIDERS or even AVENGERS . . . there are exciting bits, funny bits, scary bits, romantic bits, shocking bits, weird-for-weird’s sake bits . . . the movies run the gamut of many emotions for the viewer. And they feel like they breathe, they acknowledge that we live in a world in which there are many different conflicting and contrary emotional responses to various situations. If those movies don't run the emotional gamut from A to Z, they at least go A to, say, K. But HUNGER GAMES and ENDER’S GAME only go from A to C and they suffer for it.
  • Whoever’s making these movies seems to think that, in order to maintain a certain thematic tone, then the story itself should elicit exactly one or maybe two emotional responses from the audience, and they relentlessly bang on that limited emotional palette for the whole two hours. It's exhausting and boring and self-defeating. You need to let up on the tension to create real tension. You need to have serious parts for the funny parts to hit, and vice versa. So maybe a new item in the checklist might be like, "Does the story make the viewer experience at least 5 distinct emotions" or something like that. Or "Are there necessary tonal shifts." Basically, a more sophisticated, multivalent version of "Did it make 'em laugh AND cry?"
Then j.s. responded:
  • About James Kennedy's point: I get what you're saying. But I'd argue that you've just been seeing too many subpar one-note movies. It's hard enough for any given film or book to create and sustain a mood, period. I've seen some pretty great new one- or two-note films this year: ALL IS LOST, PRISONERS, THE CONJURING, CAPTAIN PHILLIPS. And some of the greatest films of all time take place in a very narrow register. Not every story needs the generosity and full spectrum humanity of writers like Shakespeare, Chekhov and Tolstoy. I wouldn't want LE SAMOURAI interrupted by comic relief or some kind of Ozu-esque sadness at the fleeting nature of things.
I totally agree that what James points out is a huge problem with modern movies. I call it "the Hans Zimmer problem" because his relentless sledgehammer scores often contribute to the pain.
It's funny, because one of the questions on the checklist is “Does the story maintain its mood?” which is sort of the opposite. That question was aimed at movies like Hancock which switch the main storyline from comic to serious with the subtlety of a record scratch, but what James is talking about is different, and it’s very important.

So what would the new questions be? Maybe one or both of these:
  • Does the story feature comic relief?
  • Do the scenes have varying levels of intensity?
But what about j.s.’s points? I haven’t seen his examples yet (except Le Samouri, which I haven’t seen in many years) but I would cite a movie like The Black Swan which benefits from continuous intensity. Ideally the question would somehow distinguish between Black Swan on the one hand vs. Hunger Games or Man of Steel on the other.

I think one difference between Black Swan and those other movies is that the intensity in BS is subjective: the heroine feels no let up from the pressure in her brain, and the movie recreates that feeling in a powerful way, whereas in HG and MoS, the unrelenting intensity is external. The heroes aren’t hallucinating that their world is this monotonously intense, it really is, and that means that I’m sitting in the audience rolling my eyes and plugging my ears.

So what question could account for that? Maybe…
  • No matter how serious it is, does the story have moments of comic relief and/or breathing room for the audience (unless the material demands a tone of unrelenting hopelessness)?
The problem with that one, I guess, is that the Hunger Games producers would probably insist that their silly little movie does demand unrelenting hopelessness...and besides, this fails to take into account that even truly miserable movies tend to benefit from glimpses of hope, if only to make their ultimate bleakness all the more horrible...just look at Funny Games.  Maybe I just have to lop off the parenthetical and make this a question that Black Swan and Captain Phillips will have to say no to, and that’s okay.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

I think it's mostly a directing problem. Some directors know how to manage the ebb and flow of a story, and some just know how to play one note for 100 scenes in a row. Writers, self-flagellating as they are, always search for reasons that the writing is the problem, but it's important to remember that it's not always the writing. Many Hollywood directors are hacks. They can pull together the visuals to make an amazing trailer, but they don't have enough observational skill or intellectual curiosity to create different energies where appropriate. They grind down the jagged edges of potential that are suggested by any good script, until all that's left is a smooth surface of obviousness. In short, they don't know how to tell a story.

It's totally possible for a script to be monotonous, of course, but a genuinely monotonous script would be boring and probably wouldn't get made.

Margaret McGlynn said...

Maybe the overly earnest movies you're talking about don't have sufficient gravitas that grows from the story and characters, so the director pushes that solemn tone to the exclusion of all other emotions.

I think a story with real gravitas requires emotional variation, and benefits from humor, romance and a broader emotional spectrum. Like "The Telltale Heart", The Black Swan takes us down a dark corridor in the psyche, but a story like the Hunger Games is more of a conventional hero's journey, needs more emotional variety.

Maybe it's just a question of matching tone to genre, and if you notice a film is overly intense, that film's director has arguably failed to grasp the proper tone for the genre of the film he's directing.

Matt Bird said...

Anonymous: You're probably right, but writer can at least try to fight against it: the total lack of comic relief or hope in Man of Steel was presumably pre-evident in the script.

Justin Walsh said...

I think it's often a problem of the story world being too shallowly defined. If we accept that stories are essentially arguments, then to become truly engaging, we have to apprehend two valid, or at least compelling views in competition. In addition, as Matt has pointed out, it's very dangerous to present a completed synthesis to the audience. They need to make that final step themselves.

So, in Black Swan, we have the questions of 'what is truly real?' and 'is the personally imagined, no matter how awful, more powerful than our shared reality?'

In the Conjuring, quite a bit of time is spent getting to know the family before things go bad. That helps build sympathy, but it is also fundamental to theme, as well as taking nature vs nurture to a twisted extreme.

In Man of Stool, they set up questions about whether Supes should hide or reveal who and what he is - but they present no real argument (all the meaningful choices are good vs bad), no counterpoint, no internal struggle and god I hate that movie. In a story about being an outsider with tremendous power and compassion, the big finale is about knocking down buildings.

And this is getting long, but I'd been trying to figure out the major difference in how I felt about Hunger Games vs Battle Royale (acknowledging that they are different stories). HG manipulates and tells you what to feel. BR does not, and demands you find your own meaning in what's going on.

So I'm kinda with j.s. In all the great one-note movies I can think of, the ground against which that tone is measured is brilliantly and almost invisibly set up.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Justin Walsh above hits it very well. To paraphrase him, I think, the division between monotone movies that work and those that are dreary may be that there's a difference between "this is an unremittingly sad story" and "the world is an unremittingly sad place." We can accept the former easily; the other most people intuitively grasp is nonsense.

Movies can subtly (or not so subtly) make statements of truth about life as she is lived. "Black Swan" doesn't claim that misery and insanity is all that there is. "Man of Steel" kinda claims that gray, dreary joylessness is what the world is.

[Well, it's a theory. Anybody agree or disagree?]

So maybe an element for the checklist could be "Does the story imply that there is more to the world than a single emotional tone?"

Also, a question: is it a problem for a comedy? Is the idea that "the world is an unremittingly silly place" as wearying? I don't think so, but I have a very high tolerance for goofy crap.

Matt Bird said...

I like that Harvey...maybe something like:

"Are there moments and/or characters that provide an alternative to the overall mood (light moments/characters in dark stories, dark moments/characters in light stories), even if the hero refuses to acknowledge them."

As for comedy, I would say that, as long as you have a "why are you people laughing?" character, which almost every comedy has, then you're going to be able to ground the rest of the silliness.

Other than spoofs, I can only think of two comedies I would define as "the ENTIRE world is an unremittingly silly place", both cult comedies: "Super Troopers", which I love, and "Tapeheads", which I loved as a kid but found to be dreadful when I watched it as an adult.

j.s. said...

I don't know, I'm still thinking that most of us are going too far in demanding that any given story reflect the whole of human experience, even in some tiny facet. I don't believe a film or book has any responsibility to the world outside the one it's portraying. How true would a film about a contemporary North Korean prison camp be if it included anything that suggested the hope/possibility of a better life for longer than a fleeting second? See what I mean? Even a thriller like PRISONERS, in its own way, earns the right to its world-enveloping darkness. And that's what this issue is really about to me. Does the film earn its tone, however extreme or relentless? However you feel about THE DARK KNIGHT, for instance, it certainly seems to have done a better job at justifying its darkness than MAN OF STEEL did.

When I kick back with my Bronies and watch FRIENDSHIP IS MAGIC I'm not expecting to see a balanced view of mankind that also presents the bottomless possibilities for our collective degradation any more than I expect to see unicorns in the middle of Pasolini's SALO.

Matt Bird said...

I've only seen one episode of "Friendship is Magic" (I told you I watch every pilot!), but when I watched it, I did indeed think, "Oh, okay, I understand why adults watch this: there's race, there's class, there's good and evil, and, yet again, the likable heroine seems to have a (mild) case of Asperger's!"

(Unlike in "The Bridge" however, it makes sense here, because Asperger's and Friendship form a natural duality.)

As for your prison camp movie, I think of movies like "The Seventh Seal" and books like "Sophie's Choice", which could not have bleaker subject matter, but manage to have a shocking degree of buoyancy and even moments of joy. We remember the bottomless horror of Sophie's situation partially because it stands out in such stark contrast to the vein of droll humor running throughout the book.

I think one thing that's gone wrong with movies is that filmmakers assume that bleak stories require bleak storytelling, but Bergman, Kurosawa and Godard would happily prove that wrong.

j.s. said...

But some bleak stories absolutely demand bleak storytelling. I'm thinking especially of Michael Haneke's work, particularly his "emotional glaciation" trilogy. How can you possibly truthfully portray emotional glaciation if you're constantly varying your tone (which almost by definition would be the opposite of said glaciation)? If you want to see a film that has way more to say about media violence than the adolescent and didactic metafiction of FUNNY GAMES (both versions), try BENNY'S VIDEO. Then try arguing that the film would be better with a few jokes and some less despairing characters.

Or attempt the same with another extreme favorite, a Russian film called THE CHEKIST, about a backwater unit of the secret police caught up in an endless slaughter of local innocents until it rots the core of all their souls.

I guess there are two sticking points that keep me coming back to this conversation. The first is that I believe that not every story -- even some of the works of the masters we've been bandying about -- has or should have all the colors of human experience in it. And the second is that I do think there's something of an anti-bleakness/anti-seriousness double standard at work. (Like I said above, nobody berates shiny happy children's cartoons for their intentionally narrow/naive worldview).

If this were just a disagreement about art films, I wouldn't still be stuck on it. But this all started out with something James Kennedy wrote about a huge mainstream hit. And I think there are many genre films that do benefit from a narrower tonal range, particularly certain thrillers and horror films.

Btw, I meant to mention this before in the thread, but one way out in a certain type of dark film is pitch black comedy, preferably delivered deadpan. TAXI DRIVER is the best example of this, but even BLACK SWAN and some of the Haneke films have it too. (There are some seriously uncomfortable laughs in THE PIANO TEACHER, for instance.) This is not exactly comic relief, though, because, done correctly, this sort of comedy depends on and deepens your understanding of and relation to the dilemma of the protagonist.

James Kennedy said...

Our task, then, is to identify when a film suffers for excluding a greater range of emotional experience, and distinguish those cases from when a film gains power from that focus, and work that into Matt's eventual diagnostic question.

I'll agree with j.s. that not every film needs to deploy the whole gamut of emotions. However, I stand by my assertion that big modern blockbusters do have this monotonous intensity problem, which can either lead to numbness (ENDER'S GAME) or camp (BLACK SWAN, for me).

j.s. said...

Interesting that you mention "numbness" wrt ENDER'S GAME. I'm almost tempted to say that's exactly what you should be feeling, what Orson Scott Card and the filmmakers intended, what the material demands. And the source novel certainly has a better claim to the integrity of its intensity than the HUNGER GAMES. We're supposed to eventually believe that Katniss gets something like PTSD just like Ender, yet she seems forever spared the "hard to want to do" acts of killing where Ender really stands alone as responsible [SPOILER ALERT] for the greatest massacre in recorded history. I'd also say that both the book and the film of ENDER'S GAME earn their tone with numerous complicated and unpleasant truths about the militarization of society and about the ideal psychology of warriors (obviously not too nice, but equally not too nasty!). Turns out the perfect war leader kills the enemy (and, if need be, his own men) with cold and relentless calculation until the fighting stops definitively.

The film didn't work for me either. But I'm not sure it's because of the constricted bleakness of the mood. There were a number of problems with pacing and casting. But for me the biggest negative was the film's failure to get inside Ender's head the way the book does, most importantly with regard to his growing intimacy with the enemy, which in the film seems to come out of nowhere.

Anyway, wish Matt had seen the film, as it's maybe worth discussing more, even in light of his current "withheld premise" post.

James Kennedy said...

j.s., as regards numbness and ENDER'S GAME, I didn't mean I was so blown away by the brutality and heartlessness of it all that my feelings couldn't process it and just numbly went offline. I meant I wasn't emotionally engaged with anything that was happening on the screen. It failed to make me care, so I was numb. (Except maybe for one moment, when Ender calls out Graff after he learns the truth of what he did. Everything else, pfft.)

And to be sure, with ENDER'S GAME, it's not the "bleakness" of the mood, as you characterized it, that left me cold. I don't think I ever felt the movie even rose to the level of bleakness. There was no emotion elicited. The whole thing slid through me efficiently and a few weeks later I can barely remember I saw it. (And I love the book, and was looking forward to the movie!)

Anonymous said...

Just answering because your rule of 2 and 1 pro bleak story commenter you have:

i liked hunger games precisely because it didn’t try to tack on laughs everywhere

also, while it doesn’t require caution since it never happened, it just wouldn’t work if it didn’t take itself seriously.

(i mention this one, because i haven’t seen most others or don’t remember their names; man of steel, while by far the best superman-movie i’ve seen, wasn’t all that great)
(also, i’m not speaking of hunger games’ sequels)